A free, comprehensive, peer-reviewed, award-winning Open Text for students and faculty in college-level courses that require writing and research.

Short Story

To state the obvious: everything happens somewhere, sometime. If you don’t make sure that your reader can imagine the where and the when of your story, that poor reader won’t stay with you, no matter how scintillating your plot is. It seems easy to say, “So just provide the details of the place and time,” but it’s a little more complicated than that. Here are a few tips:

When and where are you?

Really, the question is, “When and where are your characters? And what does that have to do with the story you want to tell?”

We tell stories every day of our lives. “What did you do last week?” “What happened with your cousin and that girlfriend of his?” “How did your mom break her leg?” –the answers to these, and a million similar questions that make up our everyday conversations, are stories, narratives with a beginning, middle, and end. Usually there’s some kind of static situation at the beginning; then complications happen, with unexpected turns for the better or worse, so that things as they were at the beginning more or less fall apart. But then, because of someone’s ingenuity or good (or bad) luck, everything refashions itself into a brand new state of being, one we might never have imagined.

The art of the short story resides in the heft of details, characters and scenes that must necessarily remain hidden from view, trapped beneath a surface comprised of approximately five thousand words. Let’s say you write a short story in which the protagonist, a woman, drives down a narrow country road that cuts through a fictional town in Connecticut. She is on her way to visit her father, who still lives in the house where she grew up. The woman is fleeing her past, one that includes a recent ex-husband. In the back seat of the car is their three-year-old son.